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NORTH KINGSTOWN â€“ When he was leaving his home in Wakefield on Saturday, Brigadier General (Ret.) Joe Wallerâ€™s friends asked why he was so dressed up.
â€śIâ€™m going to see the love of my life,â€ť he replied.
His wife had no reason to worry. Waller was headed to North Kingstown where he would join others at the Quonset Air Museum who had gathered to welcome home the Skyraider A-1E, a plane he piloted for the Navy in the mid-1960s.
He confessed to being excited by the prospect of seeing the plane which is on permanent loan to the museum. â€śIn my mind, I could hop in it today and land it on a carrier.â€ť
As Waller, 74, looked around the roomful of veteran fliers and aircraft connoisseurs, he observed, â€śAll of these individuals have many stories they can tell. Itâ€™s a great group to be with.â€ť
Among them was Jack O. Fronce Sr., of Saunderstown, who began and ended his flying career on the same dates as Waller and flew this particular aircraft between 1964-65. Waller calls Fronce his â€śbest friend.â€ť Their wives â€“ local girls whom they met while stationed here â€“ are best pals, too.
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Fronce, who is about to turn 73, recalled flying out of Quonset and making many landings on the carriers USS Intrepid and USS Wasp. â€śI learned to fly in the Navy,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s what I signed up to do.â€ť
He stayed with it and, after leaving the service, became a pilot for American Airlines. He still flies and keeps a Piper Sport in Florida. â€śIt sounds like a sewing machine,â€ť he said.
Fronce thought Saturdayâ€™s opportunity to see the actual plane heâ€™d flown for the Navy was a rare event.
â€śI donâ€™t think it happens very often,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s the first time Iâ€™ve seen the plane [in 47 years]. Iâ€™m sure Iâ€™ll feel nostalgic.â€ť
The father of three sons and grandfather of nine admitted to a secret desire: â€śI would like to sneak a ride on it.â€ť
A native of Washington, D.C. who grew up in Laurel, Md., Waller said, â€śI started and finished my flying career here. It was routine flying, anti-submarine work.â€ť When he joined the Navy he had no interest in becoming a pilot.
â€śI was afraid of heights, so I said no to flying and went into electronics. One day I went up in a squadron airplane and I liked it. Then I did what the Navy wanted me to do in the first place.â€ť
When he left the Navy, Waller worked first for Raytheon and then, for three decades, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He also joined the Rhode Island Air National Guard where he remained during that same time period, starting as a troop carrier pilot in 1967 then spending the next 23 years as a tactical airlift pilot. As a command pilot, he logged 4,500 flying hours. He became Deputy Chief of Staff, Chief of Staff and, ultimately, Assistant Adjutant General.
Along the way he earned enough military awards and decorations to cover at least one wing of the Skyraider.
Waller had just shared that he was soon to be a grandfather for the seventh time when he and his friend Fronce received a startling invitation: Would they like to go up for the flyover?
They didnâ€™t need to be asked twice.
Later, when they were back on the ground, both men were beaming.
â€śI feel like Iâ€™m 25 years old again,â€ť Waller declared. â€śIt brought back all the old days.â€ť
Fronce added, â€śIt was absolutely wonderful. It made my year.â€ť
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.